Legion-VFW ‘nomads’ now at forefront of Texas veterans complex

About five years ago, a Vietnam War veteran named Shorty handed Kathryn Chandler a handwritten flyer that looked something like an old west wanted poster. Wanted was a piece of donated land suitable to build a joint meeting hall for American Legion Post 290 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2933 of Dripping Springs, Texas.

“I thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’” she remembers. She reflected on her father, a Vietnam War veteran, and how there must be some way to help. “I thought this would be easy – raise a couple hundred grand and maybe get an acre and maybe get a Mueller building up, you know?”

A half-decade later, she patrols the construction site of a 10-acre campus in the making, a sprawling initiative abuzz with power tools and filled with workers and scaffolding. It’s the emerging centerpiece of a campus called Patriots’ Hall, that has generated millions of dollars in charitable contributions, mostly from the local community, and stands to serve as a model for today’s veterans in central Texas, perhaps beyond. The first building completed on the campus is the new joint home of the local American Legion and VFW posts.

“We were just kind of nomads, moving around wherever somebody would let us visit for a while and have meetings,” explains Jerry Martin, a Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran and a member of both posts.

The two posts were conceived at the same time 30 years ago, largely by Gary P. Hale and Ronnie Glen “Shorty” Barnett, who assembled about 25 veterans each to apply for charters. Hale, a platoon leader in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, said it was just by coincidence that the American Legion post number assigned to Dripping Springs was 290, same as the U.S. highway number of the four-laner that passes through the community of about 5,000, known as the gateway to the Texas foothills, just outside of Austin.

The posts met in a restaurant at first, then at a high school ag booster barn. Reconstruction at the school meant the posts had to find a different place to meet, so they moved into an old one-room schoolhouse at a boys home, where Shorty had worked, outside of town. The veterans were content, using the place rent-free, until the local volunteer fire department expanded and relocated as the city grew (more than quadrupling in population over the last 30 years). “That old building sitting there became vacant,” Hale explains. “And our old commander talked to the people and said, ‘Is there any way we could get into that building and use it for our hall?’ They allowed us to do that, and we moved into that building. It was a very nice building – an old building – but it was still 1,000 square feet. We had room in the back and had an air-rifle team, an indoor rifle range, and plenty of room to store stuff.”

However, a creek running next to the old fire hall had a propensity to overflow its banks. “When there was a really bad rain, that water would get right up to the foundation,” Hale explains. “It didn’t really flood, as in six inches of water in there, but water crept into the building, and because of that, that building got mold in it. The city, which now owned that building, was concerned about electrical issues and mold … and finally said they were going to have to shut that building down.”

Homeless again, the posts were granted space in an old rock structure on the high school grounds until that was no longer available, and they moved into a church for a while. About that time, Barnett and Hale began their pursuit of a permanent home. The wanted poster went up around town, and it was published in the local newspaper. Kathryn Chandler, whose husband is Emmy Award-winning actor Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights,” “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and many other films and TV shows), brought the flyer home and “we got involved in it,” says the performer who has also served on the local volunteer fire department. “The next thing was looking for land around Dripping Springs and talking to the mayor, who started to help out. We started looking at (steel) Mueller buildings.”

The Chandlers presented the idea to software entrepreneur Hank Seale and his wife Lyssa, who had been supporters of Dripping Springs community initiatives. “The Seales had a different take,” Kyle Chandler says. “They said this is way too small. This could be big. This could be really important … much bigger. That’s when it started growing exponentially.”    

The American Legion and VFW posts had their champions – the Chandlers, Dr. Mary Jane Hetrick and Amy Doucet as primary forces, and the Seales, with many others soon to step up. Acting on the Seales’ recommendation, the women surveyed veterans from Fort Hood to San Antonio – a swath of the nation with a greater concentration of military-connected population than any other in America – to find out what was really wanted and needed. The idea of a “one-stop shop” for multiple veterans service took shape, as did a bigger identity for Patriots’ Hall of Dripping Springs.

After one promising location fizzled out, the 10-acre site along Highway 290 was secured, thanks to the Seales, and the survey results laid out priorities that would guide a property design tailored specifically for the post-9/11 veteran community. The Meeting Hall of the Legion and VFW posts was finished in January 2021, the cornerstone of a campus where a 7,100-square-foot multi-purpose facility is now under construction, due to open in June 2024, with an adjacent wellness center to follow.

Under the administration of a Patriots’ Hall board of directors that includes the Chandlers, Hetrick, Doucet and four veterans, the project has drawn media attention – as well as onlookers who pass by the construction project alongside Highway 290.  

“When we got this hall here, it was like a load off our back,” Hale says. “We finally had something that was ours.” The brand-new structure with overhead support beams that resemble crossed rifles, a library and patio deck now also serves as an election polling place, and the posts sponsor local Scouting units, as well as Boys State participants and VFW youth programs. A portrait of Shorty hangs in a place of honor inside the Meeting Hall, and his wanted poster is framed and displayed in the library area. He passed away about a year ago, having finally seen his dream come to life.

With more than 100 members, the posts are experiencing growth and some changing demographics. “We’re seeing some younger veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan, showing up here,” says American Legion Post 290 Commander Ben Adair. “One of the things that we wanted to do – and continue to do – is not be a canteen, a bar, or anything like that. We want to be an outreach, a place of gathering. We are kind of getting our traction now that we have a home.

“Our community events involve all members of the VFW and The American Legion, and when we lead up to those community events, we hold joint meetings here, with both posts at the same time. There’s a great core of people who do a lot of work for both posts. We see that as our foundation. As we pull more members in, we want to expand what we do.”

Once the big building is complete, the opportunity to do that – and achieve even greater awareness for the Legion and the VFW – will be right next door.

“That’s very important,” says VFW Post 2933 Commander Bob De Jong, also a member of the American Legion. “It improves the overall image of the two organizations, especially in the community. The community sees this on a regular basis. They drive by it. They come here to vote. So, the next question is, ‘What do you all do?’ We’ve had a lot of success with recruiting, inquiries, the programs that we do … we’ve had a lot of people give donations because of that, just simply because their son or grandson – or granddaughter – was a participant or a winner of one of the programs. So, it has been very beneficial. We get a lot more spotlight, and it’s a very positive spotlight.”

“Now that we have a place of our own, through Patriots’ Hall, we are given some control over what happens in this building,” Adair says, adding that the new Meeting Hall’s service as a voting location “attracts folks here, and many of these folks are veterans. And they’re like, ‘Wow, this is really a nice place.’ Some of those folks will wind up visiting us for a meeting or ask us about the Legion, or ask us about the VFW, what we do, what we’re about.”

“Other than our meeting space here, the bigger hall is going to serve the entire central Texas veterans,” Martin says. “One of the physicians here is going to have a facility here where he is going to come periodically. The community is going to be able to use the facility for all kinds of events. They’re going to have a fishing place here, a stable – things that veterans from all over central Texas will want to come visit and be a part of. I think that gives us an opportunity to really serve veterans.”

Jeff Wells – an Army combat officer of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Legionnaire and one of the veterans on the board of directors for Patriots’ Hall – lists six primary areas the campus will address:

-       Basic needs

-       Education

-       Physical health

-       Mental health

-       Employment assistance

-       VA benefits assistance

“Within each of those categories you will have a bunch of different services that will all be run out of here,” he explains. Included will be VA claims assistance, a high priority veterans expressed in the survey.

The big building, wellness center and outdoor recreational features – which include a fishing pond, fire pits, play areas for children, a walking/running trail, garden and stables for equine therapy – are all driven by the survey results. “The survey had both options – coming here to do events, veterans-only, or coming here to do events, with your families,” Hetrick explains. “And families always came in higher.”

The project, originally budgeted at $5.9 million, increased in estimated cost during the COVID-19 pandemic and is now expected to come in at about $10 million, $8.4 million of which has been raised. As costs climbed, so too did community support.

“All of this is community money,” Kathryn Chandler says. “We haven’t really approached corporations. We haven’t pitched government entities. We wanted to show our veterans … that the community supports them. So, after we have this up and running, we want to go to other communities that have the same need and just start planting them there. We will help them get the vision together.”

Navy veteran John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair products and The Patron Spirits Co., is acknowledged for his key sponsorship with a sculpture and plaque at the entryway to the Meeting Hall that thanks him “for your generous spirit and … for your service.”

Kathryn Chandler says that DeJoria, who has been a guest investor on the ABC series “Shark Tank,” remains supportive and has suggested “a Shark Tank for veterans, and let’s ask the whole community to come.”

“All of these people just came together,” says Kyle Chandler, who introduced the project to Wells, a personal friend who runs a non-profit called Walk Among Veterans that pays for World War II veterans to go to Normandy, France, each year during D-Day anniversary ceremonies. “This whole thing has been funded so much by the community. It’s so community-driven. When we have the big opening, it’s kind of exciting to think that all these people who have put their money in the game to see this happen … this place is going to be filled. It’s going to be something. As it keeps continually growing, the more you learn what veterans need, it becomes more and more precise.”

His wife says she hopes that in 10 years, when she visits Patriots’ Hall of Dripping Springs, …. “I will pass other ones on the drive here. That would be a dream. This is the flagship here.”

To the Chandlers, who left Hollywood and purchased a rural spread near Dripping Springs in 2007, this kind of project – and the community support around it – “gives you great hope,” the actor says. “It makes you feel proud – proud to be a Dripping Springs person, proud to be a Texan, proud to be an American … there’s people out there who want to help. People overall are good and want to help, and they want a challenge. And that’s the deal, so you get to give back to some people who offered to take on the ultimate challenge, to put their lives on the line to do something they believe is important. It’s kind of amazing to have the opportunity to be a part of it.”